Welcome to the fourth installment of Grow Pittsburgh’s Grower’s Spotlight, a series we started to highlight local growers of all kinds in an effort to teach, inspire, and strenghten our community of growers here in Pittsburgh. Today we’re thrilled to feature Jenise Brown, a backyard front yard gardener from Squirrel Hill. Jenise, and her husband, Jason Pampena are both members at the Garden Resource Center, serve on the GRC Advisory Committee, and volunteer at our Annual Seed Swap at the Carnegie Library. They’re also behind the @pgh.ecoavengers account on Instagram, advocating for sustainability in a number of forms. Learn more about Jenise below and be sure to follow her and Jason on Instagram for low waste tips, garden harvests, and thrift hauls!

GP: When did you first start growing food?

Jenise: When I was little we had a small garden that was mostly roses and sunflowers, but we also had some vegetables like carrots and peppers. I went to college and studied biology and eventually ended up focusing on ecology and doing research on how pesticides affect non-target organisms. Skip ahead to 2013 and I moved back to Pittsburgh. We are incredibly lucky to have CLP Squirrel Hill within walking distance and one day I started picking up gardening books to read. Jason jokes that I was doing a thesis on gardening. After about a dozen books and a couple failed attempts at gardening in our heavily shaded backyard, in 2015 we started growing food in containers in the front yard. One thing led to another, and now we have two large raised beds and almost no grass!

GP: What other ways are you focused on sustainability?

Jenise: I have published three papers in academic journals about aquatic ecology and currently work as an environmental educator at both the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Rivers of Steel. I also run our Instagram account where I try to talk about sustainable, low waste, and garden friendly practices I use in my life to encourage others.

GP: What was the biggest success in your garden this season?

Jenise: Using row cover on conduit tunnels to overwinter the garden. It was our first time trying out row cover, and it worked out great to keep some of the semi-hardy plants alive that wouldn’t have made it through the coldest part of the winter. We now have a two-year-old perennial lavender shrub, and keeping our own kale alive over the winter is a whole lot better than grocery store greens! It also gave our garlic and turnips an early start so that they were already getting big by the time the weather warmed up in the spring.

GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Jenise: Peas! They are so forgiving

and so tasty.

GP: What’s the best piece of advice you could give to someone new to growing?

Jenise: Focus on the soil. When I first started I was so overwhelmed with what to grow, where to grow it, companion planting, integrated pest management strategies, and more. But I focused first on really understanding what makes good, healthy soil as a foundation for growing and everyone was astonished at how big my plants were!

Jason has a piece of advice too: just start! He says he learned by “listening to the plants”… whatever that means. In all seriousness though, outside plants are really good at taking care of themselves, and all you really need to do is help them along a little. Just pay attention to what makes them do better or worse, and try to nudge things in the right direction. Within a few years you almost won’t be able to remember what it was like when you didn’t know anything about plants!

Know another local gardener you’d like to see in the Growers Spotlight? Maybe it’s you! Drop us a line to be featured in our next newsletter or on our blog.